A lesson in disabled access at Michael Tippett College

While the traditional model for SEN (Special Educational Needs) school and college provision follows the mainstream example of classroom-based learning, Head Teacher of Michael Tippett School, Marilyn Ross, has very different ideas about what the students of the recently-established Michael Tippett College in the London Borough of Lambeth actually need.

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o, with a vacant former community centre on a separate site to utilise, Marilyn and the Michael Tippett team set about creating Michael Tippett College; a ground-breaking educational setting for young adults aged 19 to 25 with complex needs, physical disabilities, autism, SLD (Severe Learning Difficulties), challenging behaviour and PMLD (Profound Medical & Learning Difficulties).

Explains Marilyn: “The ethos behind the new college is to consider what our students can do and help them realise their full potential, rather than limiting opportunities by focusing on what they can’t do.

“However, in order to achieve that, we needed a building that was safe and accessible for all our students, not only to support the wide-ranging vocational and life skills curriculum we have put in place but also to enable a varied programme of therapies and wellbeing activities.

“Working with a contractor that has the insight to truly understand those goals as well as the skills to deliver the right environment was vital and we knew from the outset that WLS was the right partner for us.”

Understanding the ethos

WLS had already worked with Michael Tippett School to deliver a number of improvements at the main school building, including modifications to the performing arts space and installation of electronic gates to improve safeguarding. The works at the school had given the WLS team an understanding of the Michael Tippett ethos, enabling the company to contribute ideas and advise on remodelling and modification requirements for conversion of the former community building.

Explains Marilyn: “The building had been out of use for several years before being given to us by Lambeth Council, so an initial refurbishment had already been done. This meant that the building was habitable but hadn’t been modified for use by disabled students.

“It was an ideal blank canvas for us to work with because it meant that we could make decisions about what we wanted to do at the site completely unhindered by the physical environment and then design the layout and facilities to suit the needs of our school community.”

The resulting project has been delivered by WLS over three phases, beginning with the refurbishment of the existing building, followed by a phase two project to build an extension to open out the art room and create a therapy room, both of which can be accessed from within the school or via the outdoor areas. A planned phase three project to enable the training kitchen and catering facilities to be extended as a cafe open to the public has not yet started on site.

Comments Jason Jeffery from WLS: “It was clear from the beginning that Marilyn and her team wanted the new college to be very different from the conventional SEN environment. Our involvement from the concept stage has enabled us to input ideas for delivering the concept in the physical space, ensuring that the challenges of working with an existing building were overcome within the context of Equality Act compliance and the physical and wellbeing needs of students.”

Practical solutions

The scheme involved significant remodelling of the space to enable the open-plan layout so central to the college’s ethos. As a result, teaching spaces can be used for a variety of purposes with trampolines folded out for rebound therapy sessions and yoga mats retrieved from cupboards for health and wellbeing sessions, for example.

WLS was also responsible for designing and installing the facilities, which include training areas for cookery and food preparation with a disabled access servery and cafe, carpentry and design and technology training facilities, and an art room. The fit-out also included the provision of bedrooms as respite accommodation with en-suite disabled access wetrooms. WLS even provided specialist wheelchairs that can be used in the shower as part of a turnkey solution designed to provide for every detail of the college’s requirements in a single package.

The contractor’s expertise in security systems meant that WLS was also able to advise on access systems, safeguarding provision and CCTV, and install all the required equipment as an integrated package. This included the widening of doorways and installation of automated opening doors to enable wheelchair access, along with key fob access to limit nuisance opening.

Working in partnership

WLS has recently completed phase two, adding an extension to the original building to enhance the art facilities and provide a therapy room. Once again, WLS contributed design expertise in addition to constructing and fitting-out the new space. The extension has been designed with flexibility in mind, enabling the new art space to open up into the existing art room. It has also prioritised student wellbeing with a glazed wall and roof that allow natural light to flood into the building, giving a sense of openness and connecting the inside space to the outdoors, as well as addressing the physical needs of visually impaired students.

“The design of the extension is just one example of how our partnership with WLS has helped us articulate our vision for the college within the fabric of our building,” Marilyn adds.

“At every point of the building design we have focused on supporting students’ wellbeing and their potential and WLS has fully integrated those principles into the design and build process.

“They are not just our contractor but have also acted in the role of consultant, design team and security specialist. As a result, we’ve been able to reduce the time and cost of the project while working with a single, accountable point of contact.”

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